Looking at all sides of Harry Truman and the birth of Israel

Harry Truman

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

In several ways, the upcoming “Truman and The Birth of Israel” at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park is a misdirection play.

The main head-turner will be the portrayal of Harry S Truman not as the automatic backer of Israel moments after its official declaration of independence in 1948, but as a multi-layered, conflicted, man-of-his-time about both Israel and his opinions of Jews. More about that in a minute.

But leading off, the playwright of “Truman and the Birth of Israel,” debuting Oct. 18, is not as it seems on the billing.  Listed as “David Cohen,” the author is really Greenhouse Theater owner Bill Spatz, as Jewish as Cohen appears to be, but with good reasons to take on a nom de plume.

A combo playhouse operator-playwright apparently wears too many hats in the public’s eye.

“David was my father’s name, while Cohen was my wife’s (Wendy) father’s name,” said Spatz, authoring his second play.  “I didn’t want to entangle myself as a producer, theater owner with playwright. It’s gotten out anyway, so it’s public.”

Almost immediately after he was sworn in upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, Truman dealt with pressure to help midwife a Jewish state in the immediate postwar era amid the guilt over the Holocaust hanging heavy over the world. Classical movie and TV portraits display a Truman facing political headwinds, but ultimately listening to the appeal of Eddie Jacobson, his Jewish former Kansas City haberdashery partner.

Chicago’s Gary Sinise, portraying Truman in a 1995 HBO movie, heartily signs U.S. diplomatic recognition as the Jacobson character praises him and Secretary of State George C. Marshall, an opponent, walks out of the room. In the Kirk Douglas-helmed 1966 movie “Cast a Giant Shadow,” David Ben-Gurion announces soon after the declaration of independence that the U.S. is the first nation to recognize a Jewish state. Listening to the celebration in Washington, D.C., John Wayne, playing Douglas’ friend  — a U.S. Army general – wishes Israel well, knowing the U.S. will not help them militarily in their War of Independence.

In his play, Spatz does not repeat the setting in the heady days of the spring of 1948. Instead, he advances the clock to 1953, after Truman has left office, and is home in Independence, Mo. Truman’s true feelings – swinging both ways – about Israel and the Jews come out in discussions about a potential slander suit. Spatz did his research well. Truman had been engaged in a longtime dispute with Kansas City Star president Roy A. Roberts, a longtime critic. The dispute eventually brought the U.S. Justice Dept. down hard onto the Star’s cross-ownership of Kansas City NBC affiliates WDAF-TV and Radio.

Truman had long been known for his earthy language. As a man of his time, he used racial and ethnic epithets, including traditional anti-Semitic ones. From a rural Baptist background, he bore the typical prejudices. And yet he had Jewish associates such as Jacobson.

Spatz got the idea for “Truman and the Birth of Israel” attending a Florida lecture on the president.

“I (originally) drank the Koolaid on what Truman did (for Israel),” he said. “The lecture whitewashed about how wonderful he was. I ended up reading books and doing research.”

A consummate politician as was Ben-Gurion, the best interests of both countries ended up to portray Truman as a hero and great friend of Israel.

“There were shades of gray,” said Spatz. “Truman was not a bad guy by any stretch of the imagination. Was he a great friend of Israel? Probably not. But he did things for political reasons.  He did flip-flops, back and forth, and played political games. He came off as a little bit of a bigot, anti-Semite and a racist.

“We show lots of sides of Truman, the real Truman. He is a politician after being a failed businessman. It was a miracle of how he got to where he was. The play very much exposes it, here’s one side of Harry and here’s the other side.”

“If you were pro-Truman going into the play, you’ll be pro-Truman going out. If you are neutral, you might feel differently.”

The Cold War had just began, and Truman would soon counteract the Russians’ blockade of Berlin with an airlift. U.S. top military brass talked of a pre-emptive “atomic blitz” of the Soviet Union when it could not yet retaliate in kind. The House Un-American Activities Committee was ripping through Hollywood, looking for communists. There was an expedient element to his quick diplomatic action in 1948.

“Truman knew the Russians would (very soon) recognize Israel,” Spatz said.

The theater owner-turned playwright estimates he went through 25 drafts of the production. He originally considered a play on Theodore Roosevelt, but could not find the appropriate “hook.” Despite “TR’s” famous bombast, Truman’s story was so much more dramatic.

“With Truman, there was so much underneath, so much misunderstood,” Spatz said. “What he faced upon Roosevelt’s death was overwhelming.   He was a damn good politician. He was tireless in terms of campaigning (in 1948).”

Tim Kough portrays Truman. Peter Nerad is cast as Jacobson. Famous Jewish female activist/congresswoman Bella Abzug, played by Catherine Dvorak, is worked into the production. Andrew Pond plays heavyweight attorney Melvin Belli. Randy White is director.

Spatz previously wrote “Jesus The Jew As Told By His Brother James.” He will adapt that production into “Two Brothers From Nazareth,” his first musical.

Spatz has overseen the remodeling and expansion of the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., which has for more than 40 years served as an artistic home for Chicago theater companies, including Victory Gardens. He is also the president of the Bill and Wendy Spatz Charitable Foundation.

“Truman and the Birth of Israel will run from Oct. 18 to Nov. 18. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets for the play’s regular run are $32 to $35. Group discounts are available. Tickets are currently available at greenhousetheater.org, in person at the box office or by calling (773) 404-7336.

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